Wolverhampton Wanderers have had a solid start to the 2023/24 campaign and are currently on a five-game unbeaten run in the Premier League, a streak that includes a 2-1 win over champions Manchester City as well as a 2-2 draw with Newcastle United.
The club had many high-profile departures during the summer transfer window, including head coach Julen Lopetegui, while key players such as Matheus Nunes, Ruben Neves, Nathan Collins and Raul Jimenez all moved to pastures new.
The job looked like a daunting task for any incoming manager but ex-Bournemouth coach Gary O’Neil has certainly surprised a few pundits and fans alike as the Wanderers currently sit 12th in the table, one spot above last season’s finish.
However, that doesn’t mean O’Neil has been flawless with his decision-making thus far and may have made a huge blunder during pre-season by omitting a player from the first-team squad that has been scoring for fun this season, even outperforming Wolves’ star man Pedro Neto in goals.
Pedro Neto’s stats this season
Against the Magpies on Sunday, Neto claimed his seventh assist of the season in a Wolves shirt in the 36th minute after his corner found the head of Mario Lemina to level the game at 1-1.
Unfortunately for Wolves supporters and head coach O’Neil, the Portugal international pulled his hamstring and was replaced with little over ten minutes remaining.
The 23-year-old was taken off the field on a stretcher and is expected to be out for six weeks, according to The Daily Mail, although the club are hopeful that Neto can return before the congested Christmas period begins.
O’Neil admitted that Neto’s injury is a big blow for the team, claiming that “he’s been a big part of what we’ve managed to do so far”, but also believes that the side will be able to adapt without the Premier League’s top assister.
One player who could have replaced Neto in the starting lineup is £17m man Daniel Podence. The attacker moved to Molineux from Greek Super League team Olympiacos in January 2020 for £16.9m when Nuno Espirito Santo was head coach and bagged 16 goals in just over 100 appearances for the west Midlands club.
However, the 28-year-old fell out of favour with the new Wolves boss, with O’Neil revealing just a few days before the summer transfer window ended that “the squad’s ambition and where we’re trying to get to and Daniel’s aren’t aligned.”
O’Neil had also omitted Podence from Wolves’ pre-season squad back in July, leaving the door open for an exit which eventually came in the form of a return to Olympiacos on loan but signed a new three-year contract before jetting off.
Nevertheless, Podence’s form this season in Greece may leave egg on O’Neil’s face, particularly in light of Neto’s long-term absence.
Podence’s stats this season
Podence has found the net five times in the Greek Super League this season, registering seven goal contributions in total under Diego Martinez. No player has scored more than the Wolves loanee.
The winger is averaging a goal once every 76 minutes at the Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium, according to FotMob. Neto has five more assists than Podence this term in their respective leagues but four fewer goals. The Portuguese forward is helping his teammates score too, having created ten chances this season, as per FotMob again.
FBref place Podence in the top 8% for non-penalty goals per 90, the top 3% for shots on target per 90, the top 9% for passes into the opposition’s penalty area per 90 as well as the top 12% for successful take-ons per 90 over the year when compared to Europe’s top five leagues and major continental competitions. Impressive numbers indeed.
Podence is more goal-oriented than Neto, with the latter possessing greater creative instincts, but the loanee could have filled the massive hole in Wolves’ forward line in his compatriot’s absence and O’Neil may live to regret his decision.